Hindustani, Percussion

Twelve Days of Tabla: A primer on the world’s most versatile drum

  • Author: George Howlett

Hindustani tabla masters combine jaw-dropping precision with a hugely imaginative approach to improvisation. Here's a 12-part taster of North India's most astonishing drum.

—Part of Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music

1 - Tabla basics & construction

The tabla is South Asia’s most famous percussion instrument. A pair of hand drums, they are carved from tropical hardwoods such as rosewood or mango tree, and covered with two layers of animal hide. The top layers help to suppress unwanted overtones, and both drum heads also have a central area of paste (known as syahi), made out of blackened wheat or rice-starch. It is the precise construction and shaping of this area which determines much of the instrument’s tonal quality.

They are played with the fingers, palms, and heels of the hand, producing a variety of tones which many liken to the different sounds of water. Below is a short solo by one of the instrument’s finest young exponents, Soumen Nandy, demonstrating the instrument’s extraordinary range of sounds. It was performed with Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee at Darbar Festival 2013 (catch the pair again at the 2019 Festival in a double bill with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma).

2 - Origins of tabla, folk rhythms

The word tabla is thought to have its origins in the Arabic tabl (a generic term for any drum), but the instrument itself was undoubtedly invented in India. However its exact origins are shrouded in mystery and controversy. Similar instruments are visible in 5th-century temple carvings in Karnataka, and subsequent myths abound - including tales of how a double-headed pakhawaj drum was split into two halves by 13th-century Sufi saint-musician Amir Khusrau (or alternatively by an angry percussionist in Emperor Akbar’s court).

It is more likely that it evolved gradually from existing drums during the 18th century, although it is doubtful that its exact origins will ever be traced. For more information then read Jameela Siddiqi’s excellent historical article for Darbar on the subject - I have drawn from it in this one. Below is a clip of UK-based artist Shahbaz Hussain demonstrating some historic folk rhythms from Balochistan and the Punjab region - the sort of grooves which helped give birth to the modern Punjab gharana tabla repertoire.

3 - Up-and-coming stars: Ojas Adhiya

Ojas Adhiya combines extraordinary technical aptitude with a vast knowledge base. Born in a small Maharashtra village, he was drawn to the tabla from infancy, experimenting with the instrument at the age of two. He taught himself the 8-beat keherwa taal soon afterwards, shocking his father when he first overheard him. Soon after he was listed in the Limca book of records as India’s youngest tabla artist, having debuted at the age of four. He began to accompany his parents, both spiritual gurus, in their ceremonies.

Aged five he began studying with Shri Mridangraj of the Ajrada gharana. During his time as a student he also delved into jazz, ghazal, and Carnatic rhythm, and advises young players to play everything they hear. He combines exuberance with restraint, citing the influence of modern stars such as Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Pandit Kumar Bose, and Pandit Anindo Chatterjee. Today he accompanies top artists and is firmly establishing himself as an exciting solo performer.

In Ojas's words, “You shouldn’t be conscious when you accompany. If you’re conscious you’re losing that moment - Indian classical music is all about spontaneous creativity, which is happening then and there.” Here we share a scintillating clip from Darbar Festival 2018, with Pandit Rupak Kulkarni on bansuri. An exuberent modern-style tabla solo gives way to melodic accompaniment and an often-humorous jawal-sawab (question-and-answer section), before the musicians come together in unison for a climactic final tihai (three-part rhythmic resolution - see my full article on the tihai here).

4 - Seasoned modern masters: Pandit Kumar Bose

Pandit Kumar Bose is one of the modern world’s most exciting percussionists. He trained under legendary Benares maestro Pandit Kishan Maharaj, and embodies his guru’s signature blend of discipline and flamboyance. His style is notoriously powerful, utilising the full range of the Benares gharana’s open-hand striking techniques. Outside of music he is an avid player of carrom (Indian chess) - his guru once gifted him a gold carrom set, saying “he is equally addicted to the game and the tabla”.

Particular awe is reserved for his control of the bayan (bass tabla) - he believes that “it acts like water, balances the angst with reposeful mood...bayan’s meend (glides) play a major role in scripting the language of love and peace.” His playing blends aggression with a lyrical, poetic approach, and incorporates global ideas (“intriguing rhythmic patterns from all over the world – Arabian, Mexican and the like”). Few alive can hold a candle to his all-around rhythmic command. Here we share a superb excerpt from a solo in tintal (16-beat cycle) performed in tribute to his guru, live from Darbar Festival 2009.

5 - Speed and stylistic changes

The tabla is famously capable of breathtaking speed. However some feel that modern playing can become too flamboyant, focusing too much on dense cascades of strokes rather than lyrical phrasings. Benares maestro Pandit Sanju Sahai described his view to me in an extended interview:

“We live in a speed age nowadays, but this is only one requirement of playing the tabla. To some it may seem like the most impressive, but it definitely isn’t the most challenging to master. Besides, excessive speed can lead you to miss the full extent of what is going on. Anyone can be impressed by the pace of a fast car as it goes past, but a real connoisseur should also appreciate the colour, the design, the driving style, and so on. We should not rush any aspect of this music”.

Here we share a clip of his superb solo performance from Darbar Festival 2018 at the Barbican Centre, demonstrating how to use speed with clarity and taste. He is deftly accompanied by young harmonium exponent Tanmay Deochake.

6 - Bol, the syllabic language of the tabla

Indian rhythm cultures are distinctive for their vocalised approaches to learning. Tabla exponents are expected to be able to ‘speak’ the rhythms they play, reciting variety of syllables that closely mirror the various sounds of their instrument. These syllables - notably including Na, Dhin, Dha, Ka, Te, Ge, and Thun - are known as bol (derived from the Hindi word bolna, meaning ‘to speak’).

Apart from forging a deep connection between the ‘inner ear’ and the sounds that are played, the use of bol allows percussionists to practice anywhere, anytime, even when away from their instrument (in my former job as a bored office worker I used to kill time by improvising bol patterns over the ticking clock as dull meetings dragged on).

Here we share an outstanding example of bol in action - Pandit Yogesh Samsi recites some complex Punjab gharana compositions before expertly playing them on the tabla, live from Darbar Festival 2013. Is this as close as Indian classical music gets to hip-hop? And how many rappers could match the Pandit’s vocal flow?

7 - What makes a great tabla artist?

Darbar asked this question to Bickram Ghosh, a superb modern maestro - see the video below. Born in Kolkata to esteemed tabla maestro Pandit Shankar Ghosh and vocalist Sanjukta Ghosh, Bickram started early (“there are photographs of me at two years old, propped up with pillows and banging away on the tabla”). His experimental style incorporates ideas from early sarod training and his mother’s Patiala vocal gharana, and he also draws inspiration from Carnatic percussion through detailed study with mridangam maestro S. Sekhar.

He has accompanied Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar and sometimes plays with his cousin Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, but often looks outside classical music too. Having grown up in a house full of global drums, fusion was a natural step. Collaborators have included George Harrison, Sufi musicians, and the Mezcal Jazz Unit, and his new-age Rhythmscape group continues into its second decade.

He has also scored over 25 films, with his soundtrack for Jal earning him an Oscar nomination. Outside of music he completed a Masters degree in English Literature, and has acted as an ambassador for the Indian Election Commission, promoting democratic engagement in West Bengal while soloing on TV. So - what does he think is required to be a great tabla player?

8 - Gender inequality, new changes

The tabla has long been a male-dominated instrument - perhaps more so than any other in the Hindustani tradition. But thankfully, old prejudices are starting to fall away, and superb female players are now emerging at the top levels. Artists and listeners are increasingly realising that the main barriers to female success are social and economic rather than physical.

Few have proved that as much as Anuradha Pal - one of the world’s most accomplished percussionists of any gender. She describes the challenges: “I have always faced discrimination...people would praise you but won’t give you the chances. If they give you a chance, they won’t give you money. If they give you money, they would make sure that your name does not come in publicity”.

But through tireless effort she has gained respect for her artistry, accompanying top artists while also soundtracking films and playing djembe, darbuka, bongo, kanjira, udukkai, and many other drums. Few can match her ability, but few have had to work so hard to have their talents recognised.

Darbar seek to celebrate female artists for their creativity and skill while also recognising the distinct challenges they face. In the words of Pandit Sanju Sahai: “Excellent female players are definitely more visible nowadays. But they were there 20 years ago - it was just much harder for them to get noticed...If women can be wrestlers then why can’t they be tabla players?”

9 - Tales of the tabla: duels and duets

Percussionists around the world are often competitive animals, seeking to demonstrate their skill and physical prowess by facing off against other drummers and doing rhythmic battle. Tabla history, being a predominantly oral tradition, often crosses over into myth, but sparsely sourced stories can still illustrate fundamental truths about how artists see their tradition.

In one such tale, 18th-century tabla master Ustad Kale Khan brought his tabla to Delhi’s Red Fort, facing off against competitors from around the land in a contest organised by the Mughal Emperor. It is said that after days of frenetic competition, Khan revealed a new composition imitating the sound of surrounding birds, and played it so sweetly that pigeons flew to him in appreciation. The Emperor awarded him the title, and offered to crush the hands of his opponents, but Khan successfully pleaded with him to spare them. (The Red Fort Kayda is still performed today.)

But at their finest, tabla face-offs are collaborative endeavours. Here we share a short duet clip featuring two artists we met earlier, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee and Pandit Kumar Bose, who joined forces for a special one-off London concert organised by Darbar in 2018. They trade phrases in tintal, using ideas from many different gharanas to superbly complement each others’ playing, while also issuing each other challenges. Catch the full 80-minute version on the Darbar Player.

10 - Virtual frontiers: Tabla in VR360

If you’re the sort of person who can’t get enough tabla...then watch four of them play together in Darbar’s experimental 360° video. Sit invisibly in the middle of the musicians and choosing which one to focus on. Best experienced with smartphone and headphones - drag the screen or point your device in different directions and experience how the images and sounds respond to you. Better still with a VR headset.

This video captures Chakardar, a high-energy tabla quartet who play and recite the bols in tight unison before breaking down into individual improvisations. The ensemble is led by Harkirat Rayatt, the son-in-law of Bhai Gurmit Singh-ji Virdee, in whose memory Darbar was founded. (Darbar’s Sandeep and Jagdeep recently went to India and 360°-filmed over 30 artists, recording full-length ragas in temples, villages, and breathtaking natural landscapes - more info to follow!)

11 - From the outside: Bernhard Schimpelsberger

Many non-tabla players are turning to the instrument’s rich language to find new inspiration in their own genres. British-Austrian percussionist Bernhard Schimpelsberger is one of them.

He brings a deep affinity with Indian rhythm to his roots in jazz and Western classical, and his detailed study sets him apart from his peers - notably a long association with tabla maestro Pandit Suresh ‘Taalyogi’ Talwalkar. He interprets the grammar of Hindustani music on cajon and full drum kit, mimicing Dha-Dhin with his snare and cymbals and playing deep bayan strokes on a kick drum specially modified to allow for multiple pitches.

He has worked with classical artists including Rakesh Chaurasia as well as fusioneers such as Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, and Susheela Raman, as well as the Akram Khan dance company and his own group Circle of Sound. He is unafraid of eclecticism, and never lets his virtuoso technique mask his musical priorities.

He summarises his unique approach as this: “Drums are the vehicle I travel on, but then the driver is the tabla”. See his unique hybrid style in action in the video below, and also watch a mini-documentary by Darbar where he describes his musical journey.

12 - Darbar's tablistic origins

Darbar was founded in memory of Bhai Gurmit Singh Virdee, an inspirational tabla teacher who achieved extraordinary success at promoting the instrument in Europe, instructing students here for over half a century.

Born in India and raised in Kenya, his interest in music started whilst carrying out voluntary service at his local Gurdwara (Sikh temple). His life took on a more spiritual path after he moved to the UK in the 1970s, as he retired from concert performance to focus on Gurbani Kirtan (devotional music) and teaching those in his community.

Gurmit-ji believed that God had blessed him, recalling that during his lifetime he had been able to contemplate, compose, perform, explore and experience the richness of this wonderful instrument. To him, tabla was more than just a drum - he believed that in the hands of a master, it could summon the rhythms of the divine in the hearts and souls of listeners. Gurmit-ji sadly passed on in 2005.

Soon after a number of his students and fellow musicians suggested to his family that they organise a tribute concert for him. Gurmit-ji’s son, Sandeep, curated the concert, which was a huge success. A year later, Darbar Arts & Culture Heritage was born, and Sandeep continues to curate the annual Darbar Festival and ensure the legacy of his father’s vision lives on.

Here we share a superb solo excerpt by Gurdain Rayatt, Gurmit-ji’s grandson, playing at Darbar Festival 2011. Gurdain is one of Europe’s finest young tabla players, having trained under his grandfather as well as Pandit Shankar Ghosh.

George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. Parts of this article draw from Jameela Siddiqi's excellent historical writings for Darbar on the tabla - history and instrument basics. Have a read!

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talk and documentaries in pristine HD and UHD quality.

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